A Fantastic Woman: A Well Composed Drama
Review by Aaron Haughton
Recently crowned Best Foreign Language Film at last weekend's Oscar ceremony, A Fantastic Woman is a beautifully rendered Chilean drama that rings authentic and powerful. The story is fairly simple and calm at the surface, held together by a phenomenal debut performance by Daniela Vega, but under the quiet exterior lurks a creeping boil that is both fresh and engaging to see play out on screen. The film feels cut from the same cloth as Pedro Almodóvar and Alfred Hitchcock, but boasts a vitality all its own, which is in part due to Sebastián Lelio's focused direction and Daniela Vega's wonderfully contained performance.
Marina (Daniela Vega) is a young trans woman who works as a waitress and aspiring singer. She's in love with Orlando, who is 20 years older than her and owns a printing company. After celebrating Marina's birthday one evening, Orlando falls seriously ill and passes away just after arriving at the hospital. Marina's life is then turned upside down as she struggles for the right to be herself, as she is denied such basic human rights as attending the funeral and wake. Scrutinized by the police and Orlando's family, who mostly view her her sexual identity as an aberration, a perversion, along with the very same forces that she has spent a lifetime fighting just to become the woman she is now - a complex, strong, forthright and fantastic woman.
Sebastián Lelio had initially hired Vega as a consultant for the script, and wound up hiring her to play Marina's part, ultimately shaping the role around her and allowing facets of Vega's own life, such as her being an opera singer, to find their way into the narrative. The reason the film feels so authentic seems to stem from Vega's very presence and the fact that the story has semi-autobiographical elements for her to work with.
Vega's performance is the very lynchpin that holds the film together. This is very much her film, in the sense that I can't see it being nearly as engaging or interesting if the role was cast to any other actress, and the film rests upon her shoulders, which she carries with unflinching ease. Vega's character of Marina undergoes a gradient of injustices, spanning from the very minute and subtle to the outright scary hateful, and she remains dignified in a stoically collected way, only allowing the effects of these injustices to shine through in minor ways that perfectly reflect the inner turmoil. Marina never takes out her aggressions in inappropriate ways or lashes out at other individuals (as many people commonly do); she hits a punching bag or sings for catharsis. She is cool and composed, until she isn't, which even then isn't a freakout in the sense that you or I would have and a moment that feels 100% earned.
Lelio's use of lighting is vibrant. He uses this to strike a mood, and in some respects creates a few moments of tension and suspense just with the use of lighting, like in the sauna immediately following the title sequence. The gradual shifts in coloration put you on edge and pique curiosity, as you know something is about to happen, but your never really sure what that will be.
The writing overall feels very crisp, and the story winds and twists in unexpected ways, which makes the journey that much more pleasurable. With each new person that Marina encounters, you never know how they will treat her, and their reactions can range from respectful to hateful to ridicule. Since the film is Spanish, you also get several different ways that character's can describe (or insult) gender. The story also unfolds in interesting ways with a few McGuffins sprinkled here and there, which is where the film lends its comparisons to Hitchcock, to keep you on your toes.
The direction is air tight and remains as composed as the lead actress. As opposed to having Vega externalize her character's internal feelings, he has her reign it in and depicts her inner struggle in beautifully metaphorical and otherworldly ways. When Vega walks down a sidewalk with a tumultuous breeze, she struggles to stand upright, just as she is struggling to cope with the loss of Orlando and deal with the scrutiny of the forces which surround her. It is a simple, yet effective image. The best instance of Lelio's visual externalization of Marina's inner turmoil comes in the form of a gigantic mirror two workers are carrying across the street. The mirror confronts Marina, throwing back her image in a wavering and shaky reflection. Mariana herself would never give the world the satisfaction of seeing her veneer crack in such an unsteady breakdown; however, it doesn't change the fact that those feelings are still there, hiding just below the surface. It is these highly effective and beautiful visual externalization, coupled with Vega's strong portrayal, that make this film pop and sparkle.
The film is very timely, yet universal enough for anyone who has ever felt on the outside or shunned by society to connect and empathize with Marina and her position. It's wonderfully constructed and unpredictable, well worthy of the accolades it's collected. If you're able to catch the film in your area, I'd recommend you check it out.
Rating: 4 mysterious locker keys outta 5.
What did you think of the film? Was it worthy of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!